Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Kiss and Say Goodbye:
Kate McGarrigle, 1946-2010

January 19th, 2010


how I attempted seduction
with a select and
careful playing of
The McGarrigle Sisters

how you seduced me
stereophonically          the laugh

the nose      ankle      nature

repartee      the knee

- from “The desire under the Elms Motel,” by Michael Ondaatje

That poem, from Ondaatje’s striking 1984 lyrical suite about marriage and infidelity Secular Love, always seemed to me evidence of the quiet way that Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s music insinuated itself into Canadian lives (or at least some Canadian lives), less as a main focus than as a climate, an atmospheric pressure. By power of understatement, they were able to attain, with remarkable frequency, something like perfection. (Kate’s children Rufus and Martha Wainwright’s songs sacrifice some of that perfection in favour of the sense of drama bestowed/wreaked upon them by their American dad, but it’s always available to them as singers when they reach for it.)

Following Kate’s sad death on Monday, after four years of suffering from liver cancer, many people will speak reverently of their singing voices, and perhaps of how they brought Quebec Acadian folk music for the first time to larger English audiences. But the sisters’ remarkable touch as songwriters is often neglected: so subtle, positively allergic to flash, but so sure and firm, with lines that shift and intensify in repetition and by geographic references and juxtaposed allusions to folk songs that do the emotional work of narrative without many of its explicit trappings - much the way Ondaatje’s poem has it, “ankle, nature, repartee, the knee.” You can hear the deep satisfaction other singers, such as Linda Ronstadt, Maria Muldaur and Emmylou Harris, always took in covering them.

It’s hard not to be saddened by the death of someone whose cherishing of family, place and history were so obvious and so generously shared with her listeners, in concert and on their Radio Hour and family Christmas albums. You couldn’t help but feel a little like one of their cousins (especially for those of us to whom Montreal is also personally dear). Kate was still appearing on stage to sing with her loved ones up to almost the very end, when she must have been very ill, which reinforced the feeling that this was a sustaining activity for them - that sharing a song was as integral to life as sharing a meal, or a drink, or a heartfelt conversation. Some music is interior and some is social but it’s a rare trait for music to be deeply intimate and deeply communal simultaneously (no wonder Ondaatje’s narrator found it erotic). Kate McGarrigle and clan achieved this with liberty, equanimity and sorority.

Talk to me of Mendocino
Closing my eyes I hear the sea
Must I wait? Must I follow?
Won’t you say, “Come with me.”

  - from “Talk to Me of Mendocino,” by Kate McGarrigle

Profound sympathies to Martha, Rufus, Anna, Jane, Sloan, Loudon, Lily, Dane, Chaim and all the other McGarrigles, Wainwrights, Lankens and friends. Donations can be made to the Kate McGarrigle Fund, supporting cancer care and research at the McGill University Cancer Centre and McGill’s teaching hospitals.

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  2. No More Candlelight, No More Romance « Lament For A Straight Line says:

    [...] Carl Wilson says goodbye. [...]

  3. Beatrice says:

    Too sad.

  4. Quick Before it Melts » Kate McGarrigle 1946-2010 says:

    [...] could possibly say it any better than Carl Wilson did yesterday, so I point in that that direction here.  Rufus Wainwright also paid special tribute to his “Sweet and valiant explorer” [...]

  5. Tim Merrick says:

    A sad loss indeed.


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